October 30, 2010

October is the tensest month

October has long struck me as the busiest, most serious month of the year. It's not just the sports calendar that peaks in October, although baseball, which is a snooze most of the year, is the obvious metaphor. In my experience in the corporate world (not in retail, and at firms where the fiscal year was the same as the calendar year), October tended to be the month in which the big decisions were made that determined whether or not this would wind up being a good year or not. Nothing was settled in August, September was devoted to increasingly serious sparring, and by mid-November it was getting to be too late to make a difference in the current year.

In the comments, a farmer in New Zealand described the impact on him of October (or, to him, April):
"The darkness and the bitter cold"

Even though the winters are not too cold and there is no snow here at 36 south latitude, they can be miserable with over 1000mm of rain .
My farming ancestors are from Sweden , Scotland and England. Farming engenders a low-level background anxiety and reaches a peak in the autumn , when the shortening days and lower light levels have an almost physical influence on me as a farmer.

The anxiety is much heightened as I do the mental inventory of stock feed for the winter, food in the deep freeze for the family, completion of summer tasks, enough firewood to see us through the winter etc. Some days I am literally running at this time of year, and as one gets older , there is certainly more awareness of one's genetic make-up and deep history and the resulting drives.

October 29, 2010

Playing Video Games

From the LA Times:
At least one in every four stars like the sun has planets about the size of Earth circling in very close orbits, according to the first direct measurement of the incidence of such planets, researchers said Thursday.

That means that our galaxy alone, with its roughly 200 billion sun-like stars, has at least 46 billion Earth-size planets orbiting close to the stars, and perhaps billions more circling farther out in what scientists call the habitable zone, said astronomer Andrew Howard of UC Berkeley, a coauthor of a paper on the subject published in Friday's edition of the journal Science.


So, as Enrico Fermi asked, where is everybody?

Tim Lincecum's Excellent Adventure

Why does the San Francisco Giant's star pitcher Tim Lincecum always remind me of Keanu Reeves's character in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure?

Japan 1601-1852

One big question that I haven't seen asked much is whether, if Europe hadn't "taken off" around 1400-1500, would Japan have ever become the first scientific and industrial country, and, if so, how long would it have taken?

Something that Charles Murray's 2003 book Human Accomplishment made clear was that most of the world's major civilizations outside of Europe were in cultural stasis or decline by 1500, before the arrival of Europeans. If you ask Chinese, Indian, or Arab scholars to list the most important scientists and artists in their history, their lists start to peter out over the last millennium. This is rather like how the ancient Classical world's accomplishments start to slow down after the peak in the 400s BC. The New World's accomplishments seem to have peaked with the Mayans, who invented writing, but then started to lose it.

As a conservative, I have to admit that these trends tend to be due to conservatism: reverence for past accomplishments and satisfaction with the current life start to undermine the hunger for new achievements. (The Ancient Egyptians were the first to illustrate this tendency, making rapid progress about five millennia ago, then being mostly content to maintain their high relative level of civilization for thousands of years until Alexander's conquest.)

The main exception to this pattern of stasis outside of Europe was Japan. In 1601, Japan began a policy of isolationism, which lasted for 250 years. During this period, Japanese cultural accomplishments continued steadily. To take one example, the tracking of sports statistics, a minor but telling aspect of modernity, seems to go back to late 18th Century sumo wrestling. Similarly, the most famous Japanese picture in the world today, Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is from around 1830. So, Japan was continuing what looks like steady progress in a world in which backsliding was the norm. Thus, when the West rudely intruded in 1853, Japan was able to modernize itself with remarkable speed, avoiding Western conquest until the development of the atomic bomb.

Japan in 1601-1852, however, was not taking off, accelerating, the way Europe did, with Britain increasingly in the lead, especially with the Industrial Revolution. Japan was much farther behind the West in 1852 than in 1601.

Interestingly, Japan's geographical position off the coast of East Asia is rather similar to the British Isles' favorable position off the coast of Western Europe. If we assume the English (like their offspring in the New World) benefited enormously from the island privilege, what Shakespeare hailed as:
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war

Japan, then, was the most likely place outside Europe for the right combination to come together for humanity to break free from the Malthusian Trap.

So, without the West, would Japan have yet achieved science and the Industrial Revolution?

October 28, 2010

Conspicuous Assumption

Economist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term "conspicuous consumption" in 1899 to describe the nouveau riche. The term "conspicuous assumption" might describe much of modern writing about humanity, although this article by geographer Ian Morris goes out of its way to stand out:

Many reasons have been given for the West’s dominance over the last 500 years. But, Ian Morris argues, its rise to global hegemony was largely due to geographical good fortune.

... Most people, at some point or another, have wondered why the West rules. There are theories beyond number. Perhaps, say some, westerners are just biologically superior to everyone else....

Explaining why the West rules calls for a different kind of history than usual, one stepping back from the details to see broader patterns, playing out over millennia on a global scale. When we do this the first thing we see is the biological unity of humanity, which flatly disproves racist theories of western rule.

Our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago and has spread across the world in the last 60,000 years. By around 30,000 years ago, older versions of humanity, such as the Neanderthals, were extinct and by 10,000 years ago a single kind of human – us – had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. This dispersal allowed humanity’s genes to diverge again, but most of the consequences (such as the colour of skin, eyes, or hair) are, literally, only skin deep and those mutations that do go deeper (such as head shape or lactose tolerance) have little obvious connection to why the West rules. 
Lactose tolerance is not obviously relevant? Here's a bit about a non-Western set of conquerors from Wikipedia:
China is particularly notable as a place of poor tolerance, whereas in Mongolia and the Asian steppes horse milk is drunk regularly. This tolerance is thought to be advantageous, as the nomads do not settle down long enough to process mature cheese.

Morris goes on:
A proper answer to this question must start from the fact that wherever we go – East, West, North, or South – people are all much the same.

... Humans are all much the same, wherever we find them; and, because of this, human societies have all followed much the same sequence of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West.

... Humans may all be much the same, wherever we find them, but the places we find them in are not. Geography is unfair and can make all the difference in the world.

... So what do we learn from all this history? Two main things, I think. First, since people are all much the same,

As for the title of Morris's article, "Latitudes not Attitudes," I'm reminded of a more perceptive observer's conclusion:
It's those changes in latitudes,
changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same.

As I wrote in my review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel 13 years ago:
Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it's hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection.

October 27, 2010

My H.L. Mencken Club speech

From VDARE, here's the opening of my speech last weekend to the H.L. Mencken Club in Baltimore, in which I try to do a quick summing up of my epistemological approach:
I’m glad to be back addressing the H.L. Mencken Club.

Richard Spencer has asked me to speak on the topic “Can HBD Trump PC?” So let me begin by explaining what those acronyms mean.

PC stands for “Political Correctness”. HBD is short for “Human Biodiversity”.

In an intellectually healthy world, of course, the study of “human biodiversity” wouldn’t be imperiled by the reign of Political Correctness. Instead, HBD would be recognized as a necessary complement to the study of human cultural diversity. To a student of the social world, human biodiversity and human cultural diversity ought to be complementary tools, like a straight right and a left jab are to a boxer, or like words and numbers are to a thinker.

In 21st Century America, however, noticing reality is often, by unfortunate necessity, a political act. As George Orwell pointed out, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle”.

Should HBD be a field of study … or a political movement … or both?

Let’s consider the term “Political Correctness” first. This is an old New Left phrase. I first recall hearing it about 30 years ago in an interview with Joe Strummer of The Clash, in which the punk rock star lamented how stultifying the demands of Political Correctness were even for a lifelong leftist like himself. (Despite Joe’s Old Left proletarian façade, Strummer’s father, a British diplomat and secret agent, had been a close friend of Kim Philby.)

We’re often told that Political Correctness is a trivial matter of using the latest name for minority groups, but I always do that. That’s less Political Correctness than politeness.

No, PC is vastly more far-reaching. It enervates American intellectual discourse on many levels.

As John Derbyshire noted last night [in a speech on "Men Versus the Man, 100 Years On"], the best depiction of how Political Correctness functions is from the appendix to George Orwell’s 1984:
“Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments …, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

What Orwell got wrong, though, is that inculcating crimestop doesn’t require an army of men watching you from your TV.

Instead, you watch your TV—and learn from it what kind of thoughts raise your status and what kind lower your status.

It’s a system of Status Climbing through Stupidity.

Every so often, a celebrity is fired to encourage the others: NPR dumped Juan Williams this week for admitting that passengers in Muslim garb on airplanes make him nervous. Earlier this month blowhard Rick Sanchez was sacked by CNN for responding sarcastically to his interviewer’s suggestion that Jews are an oppressed minority in the media. (As one wag commented, Sanchez got fired for the first story he ever got right.) 

Read the whole thing here and comment upon it below.


Robert Wright explains the roots of American Islamophobia in the New York Times. See, we just don't have enough exposure to Muslims.
The good news is that bridging does seem to work across religious divides. Putnam and Campbell did surveys with the same pool of people over consecutive years and found, for example, that gaining evangelical friends leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals (by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer” per friend gained, if you must know).

And what about Muslims? Did Christians warm to Islam as they got to know Muslims — and did Muslims return the favor?

That’s the bad news. The population of Muslims is so small, and so concentrated in distinct regions, that there weren’t enough such encounters to yield statistically significant data. And, as Putnam and Campbell note, this is a recipe for prejudice.

So, in Europe, where there are many millions of Muslims, they must be much more popular than they are here in America. Right, Mr. Wright?

My general impression from comparing areas that are home to Muslims and nonMuslims is that Islam seems to contribute to a chip on the shoulder attitude on the Muslim side. Armenians are pretty friendly, but Chechens, well, I'm glad a lot of Chechens hasn't started moving into my neighborhood ... yet.

Western tourists prefer Bali, the Hindu island in Indonesia to the many Muslim Islands.

Are there other examples of this tendency?

October 26, 2010

How Barack Obama is like Joan Jett

The following is from a Huffington Post blog from 2008, but it's still pretty interesting. The author is entertainment industry lawyer Jackie Fuchs. After graduating summa cum laude from UCLA, she went to Harvard Law School at the same time as Barack Obama. Previously, however, as a teenager under the name Jackie Fox, she had been the bass player in the notorious all girl rock group The Runaways. The most memorable thing about The Runaways when I saw them in 1977 was rhythm guitarist Joan Jett. As a non-singing rhythm guitarist, she was kind of a fifth wheel in the band, but she radiated so much I-Love-Rock-N-Roll charisma that she upstaged the lead singer and lead guitarist. I wasn't surprised that Joan became a stadium rock star in the 1980s and even outacted Michael J. Fox and Gena Rowlands in the 1987 movie Light of Day

Jackie Fuchs/Fox writes:
... Barack Obama reminds me of Joan Jett. They are the only two people I've ever known who have affirmatively chosen to give themselves a larger-than-life persona and then grew to fill it. I saw this a little better with Joan, given that she was a younger age when I knew her than Barack was when I knew him.

Joan in late 1975 was a perfectly ordinary Valley girl. You would never have looked at her and thought you were seeing a future rock star. If you'd even noticed her at all you probably would have thought she was a bit of a mouse. She had brown hair cut in a competent, if unremarkable, shag and she had that slouched-over bad posture that seems to be the working uniform of the shy. In the early days of the band Kim Fowley was always yelling at her to stand up straight.

When I saw the Runaways play as a three-piece band at the Whiskey, I thought they weren't terribly interesting. Both Joan and Sue Thomas (the future Michael Steele of the Bangles) were ordinary and unassuming. The only member of the band that really stood out was Sandy, and she was stuck behind her drum kit. The response to the band was a bit lackluster and it's no surprise to me that Kim decided that the band needed more of a visual standout up front.

By the time I auditioned for the band they had added Cherie and Lita, both of whom grabbed your attention immediately. Joan kind of faded into the mix, and I doubt that the addition of a fifth band member, especially one who was tall, smiled and wore skirts, helped on that front. Cherie was blonde and beautiful in a sulky, fragile way, and Lita had enough personality for ten girls, not to mention lots and lots of curves. Plus they were the lead singer and lead guitarist, respectively, the two instruments that soloed on every song. Who was going to notice a shy, brown-haired rhythm guitarist with bad posture?

I don't remember which came first, the persona or the black hair, but they pretty much went hand-in-hand. One day Joan just decided to become a bad-ass rock star. She dyed her hair black, bought a leather jacket, and started scowling. She turned her slouch from that of a shy person to that of a rocker who wears her guitar slung just a bit too low. She started standing at the front of the stage and doing the most talking in interviews. It was a noticeable and calculated transformation and if it seemed a bit silly and over-the-top at first, it has served her well over time. Act like a rock star long enough, do it unfailingly and well enough, and you become one. ...

I do have to wonder sometimes if that's the Joan that was always there hiding under the shyness and brown hair, like the butterfly hidden inside the caterpillar, or whether she had to give up a significant part of Joan Larkin in order to become Joan Jett. And if so, was it worth it or does transforming yourself like that make it impossible for a question like that even to make sense?

When I met Barack Obama, in our first year of law school, he had already put on his big-time politician act. He just didn't quite have it polished, and he hadn't figured out that he needed charm and humor to round out the confidence and intelligence. One of our classmates once famously noted that you could judge just how pretentious someone's remarks in class were by how high they ranked on the "Obamanometer," a term that lasted far longer than our time at law school. Obama didn't just share in class - he pontificated. He knew better than everyone else in the room, including the teachers. Or maybe even he knew he didn't know, but knew that the leader of the free world had to be able to convince others that he did. Looking back now I can see that he had already decided that he was a future president, and he was working hard at filling that suit.

I wonder -- was there a moment in his life when he did the presidential equivalent of dying his hair black and putting on a leather jacket? I'm betting there was, but he'd already done it by the time I met him. I'm sure Barack as a child was perfectly ordinary, just like Joan was. Until the moment he decided that he was a star. The Barack with whom I went to school wasn't the Barack that debuted on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but the president suit was already on, even if it was still too big for him.

In law school the only thing I would have voted for Obama to do would have been to shut up. When he made that speech [2004 Democratic Convention keynote address] almost exactly four years ago, I wanted to vote for him. For something, for anything. Now, as his vision of himself becomes a real possibility, though, I find that he may have filled out that suit all too well. It's hard to see the humanity underneath. Even the humor feels calculated now. And again, just like with Joan, I have to wonder - is he so focused on the goal that he has to live that persona every moment of every day?

October 25, 2010

Freakonomics: The Movie

From my review in Taki's Magazine:
The new documentary Freakonomics harkens back to the good old days of 2005. Remember when economists, having permanently perfected the economy, graciously allowed their attention to wander to crime fighting, sumo wrestling, baby naming, and other fields not traditionally enlightened by their insights? University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt teamed up with journalist Stephen J. Dubner to compile one of the Housing Bubble era’s biggest airport-bookstore bestsellers: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything. Levitt and Dubner have now recruited some prominent documentarians to anthologize five disparate chapters of Freakonomics.

The most entertaining is the segment by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) on those not fully thought-through first names with which some African-Americans have saddled their babies ever since the late 1960s’ Black Pride movement. For example, scholars have counted 228 varietals of “Unique,” including “Uneek” (a fine name for a future rodent exterminator). ...

Are black children’s lives permanently damaged by all this parental originality? In 2005, Levitt and Dubner rather callously concluded that, in effect, if your parents named you “M’qheal” rather than “Michael,” your bigger problem is likely your last name. You are evidently descended from some mighty poor decision-makers.

Spurlock, however, adds a useful coda from another social scientist who mailed out résumés under white and black first names that were otherwise identical. Job applications bearing Ghetto Fabulous monikers are more likely to go straight into Human Resources Departments’ circular files. So, African-American parents: For the sake of your kids’ careers, please resist your whimsical urges. (Somebody should study the impact of the science-fictiony first names that Mormons dream up, such as D’Loaf, Zanderalex, and ElVoid.)

Read the whole thing there.

In other pop-sociology movie news, check out VideoGum's 2009 article "Malcolm Gladwell's Blink Vying for Legendary Worst Movie of All Time Status," including an important update on who is now attached to star in Blink. (Try to guess!)

Affordable Family Formation in New Guinea

The conclusion of a New York Times article "Riches May Not Help Papua New Guinea" on the influx of money into the New Guinea highlands from an Exxon natural gas pipeline:
Earlier, he had held up a warning: a local village chief who had squandered a $120,000 windfall.

A short drive away, Hamon Matipe, the septuagenarian chief of Kili, confirmed that he had received that sum four months earlier. In details corroborated by the local authorities, Mr. Matipe explained that the provincial government had paid him for village land alongside the Southern Highlands’ one major road, where the government planned to build a police barracks.

His face adorned with red and white paint, a pair of industrial safety glasses perched incongruously on a head ornament from which large leaves stuck out, Mr. Matipe said he had given most of the money to his 10 wives. But he had used about $20,000 to buy 48 pigs, which he used as a dowry to obtain a 15-year-old bride from a faraway village, paying well above the going rate of 30 pigs. He and some 30 village men then celebrated by buying 15 cases of beer, costing about $800.

“All the money is now gone,” Mr. Matipe said. “But I’m very happy about the company, ExxonMobil. Before, I had nothing. But because of the money, I was able to buy pigs and get married again.”

Here's a video of part of the amazing 1983 documentary First Contact with footage of the arrival of Australian explorers in the highlands of New Guinea around 1930. When the first airplane flew over the central spine of New Guinea, the pilot was amazed to discover that there wasn't just one mountain range, but two parallel ones with a fertile valley between them, home to about a million agriculturalists, previously unknown to the rest of the world.

"America's One Child Policy"

Catching up on things I should have noted earlier, here's a fine article on demographics and affordable family formation by Jonathan V. Last in The Weekly Standard. (The one suggestion I'd make is that I think Last understates the Hispanic Total Fertility Rate: 2.3 is more like the American-born Hispanic TFR, not the total Hispanic TFR.)

The War on Pattern Recognition

In Slate, Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post informs us how Science explains why Juan Williams is made nervous by Muslims on flights:
We Are All Juan Williams
Associating minorities with crime is irrational, unjust, and completely normal.
Juan Williams told Bill O'Reilly that he gets nervous at airports when he sees Muslims. For this, Williams has been roundly denounced as a bigot. But Williams' association between innocent Muslims and the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks was less about bigotry—at least, bigotry conventionally defined—than about his mind working normally. To live in America in the post-9/11 age and not have at least some associations between Muslims and terrorism means something is wrong with you. 

I am not suggesting that associating ordinary Muslims with terrorists is either rational or right. It's neither. But the association arises via a normal aspect of brain functioning, which is precisely why so many people entertain such beliefs—and why those beliefs have proved so resistant to challenge.

The left is wrong to wish the association away only by pointing out how unfair it is, because that denies the reality of how our minds work. The right is wrong to believe the association must be accurate merely because it is widespread. 

See, it's all the fault of evolution:
Our ancestors constantly drew conclusions about their environment based on limited evidence. Waiting for causative evidence could have proved costly, whereas extrapolating causation from correlation was less costly.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were unusual. (Even if you take all the terrorist attacks in the world, they are still unusual.) In seeking explanations for those events, our minds are drawn to other unusual things linked to them—especially at the group level. ...
Muslims are only the latest victim of illusory correlations in the United States. African-Americans have long suffered the same bias when it comes to crime. In every country on earth, you can find minority groups that get tagged with various pathologies for no better reason than that the pathologies are unusual and the minorities are minorities.

Whenever people who strongly believe in illusory correlations are challenged about their beliefs, they invariably find ways to make their behavior seem conscious and rational. Those who would explicitly link all Muslims with terrorism might point to evidence showing that some Muslims say they want to wage a war against the West, that a large preponderance of terrorist attacks today are carried out by Muslims, and so on. This is similar to our longstanding national narrative about blacks and crime. 

But even if blacks and whites do not commit crimes at the same rate, and even if Muslims are overrepresented among today's terrorists, our mental associations between these groups and heinous events are made disproportionately large by the unconscious bias that causes us to form links between unusual events and minorities. ...
People in Thailand will associate white American tourists with pedophilia even though many more acts of pedophilia are committed by Thais. But white Americans are a minority in Thailand, as are acts of pedophilia. So you will hear Thai people shout until they are blue in the face about individual anecdotes showing white Americans who are pedophiles. (The same is true of gay men and pedophilia in the United States.)

There's this obscure Thai cultural concept that might be helpful in understanding the irrational bigotry of Thais' views of single white male tourists in Thailand: it's called "on average." The Thais think that single white guys who have spent thousands of dollars to visit, out of all the places in the world, Bangkok, might, on average, be different from the average Thai who happened to be born in Bangkok.

See, they get the joke.

What we really need is an in-depth analysis of the systematic causes of anti-empirical bias in elite discourse.

The first is the professional deformation that journalists and fictional storytellers experience in their hunt for non-boring Man Bites Dog stories.You make more money coming up with interesting stories about anomalies than for pointing out the same old same old.

The second is the Platonic Temptation among intellectuals to think only in terms of absolute categories: e.g., Vedantam projects his own bias against thinking probabilistically when he claims, without citing any evidence, that there are "Those who would explicitly link all Muslims with terrorism..."

The third is The Smartest Guy in the Room Syndrome: the presumption that the more moving parts and unlikely assumptions in your theory, the smarter you must be to hold it all together in your head, so, therefore, you win.

"Fighting Fire with Quotas"

Heather Mac Donald writes in City Journal about the Vulcan Society disparate impact lawsuit and the Fire Department of New York.